We all knew about the sapling, that once majestic canopy that shaded Miss Odetta’s backyard in Charlotte. It stood there over one hundred years old, haughty and shameful with splintered brownish green limbs that jutted out distortedly like Miss Odetta’s arthritic hands.
I was born many years after that fateful evening when Miss Odetta found her youngest son, Leroy dead. His body limp and lifeless like a Raggedy Andy doll, leaning precariously against that sapling.
From bits and pieces of conversations I eavesdropped on from neighbors who were all too willing to tell the story of what happened to Leroy their way, Leroy got ahold of some bad drugs and died with a syringe in his arm and tears rolling down his cheeks as if he knew that would be the last time he saw the light of day or the full moon at night.
Leroy loved that sapling as a child growing up. He’d find grooves in that sapling to place his feet on and pull himself up from branch to branch. He’d climb it as high as he could get until one day he climbed so high they had to get a ladder to get him down.
Miss Odetta raised Leroy and her two older sons Lawson and Charles alone after their father left to play piano in a traveling jazz band. She didn’t let his leaving stop her from dreaming though. Miss Odetta had high hopes for all of them especially her baby boy Leroy. She scrimped and saved her money from cleaning houses so her boys could have nice clothes and so Leroy could take piano lessons. She swore to anyone that would listen that he was going to be a pianist like his father because he had his hands, long and slender, not like his brothers hands which were short and stubby; and his ear for music.
She poured every drop of her soul into Leroy. She made him go to Sunday school and go to her weekly revival meetings in the evening. When the other kids made fun of him for wearing polyester pants, a white shirt and tie, and toting his mother’s Bible, while he leaned against that sapling catching some shade after church, Miss Odetta would come out with her straw broom, turn the stick their way and yell, “Get outta here and leave my boy alone! You’ll aint gonna amount to nothin’ like my Leroy, get on out of here!”
Miss Odetta loved all of her sons but she loved Leroy the hardest. He could do no wrong and she didn’t believe a soul, not even her two older sons when they told her Leroy was doing drugs. She prayed as she always prayed, on her knees, and would sit in her rocking chair afterwards humming an old spiritual hoping there wasn’t a grain of truth in what they said. That maybe they were jealous of their baby brother with all the attention she gave him and they were trying to topple him down from the pedestal she put him on. But she came to the sad realization that what they said was the truth.
Leroy’s moods became unpredictable. He became as thin as a rail and stopped caring how he looked or smelt. He’d wear the same foul smelling clothes for days and the only way Mss Odetta could wash them was when he fell asleep and she took them off. And then there were the telltale signs of needle marks and scabs even between his toes until it ended that fateful day under that sapling tree in Miss Odetta’s backyard.
* * *
Today as I get ready to leave for NYU to study journalism I know this will probably be the last time I see Miss Odetta. She is old now, like the archaic cherry wood furniture in her house, the house she raised me in when she adopted me.
Deep lines map her pecan face, lines that an artist would find hauntingly beautiful but a husband who couldn’t deal with his own oldness and mortality would wish away. Her gait is measured and her recollections of things, of people and events, are fading.
Miss Odetta has only mentioned Leroy to me a few times. He is like an apparition that once lived in the home she made for me, when my birthmother gave me up. There are a few old yellowing photos of him that she keeps in a shoebox in her closet, but most of the photos are of her grandchildren from my uncles Lawson and Charles. Five grandbabies spoiled and bad tailed she tells her sons because she hadn’t a hand in rearin’ them.
Today is a scorching hot day in Charlotte. Even the scraggly stray cats that are usually wandering the neighborhood are looking for shade more so than scraps of food on a day like this. I sit down on the porch step as Miss Odetta rocks in her rocking chair, swaying back and forth as we both sip a jelly jar full of sweet tea that she still hasn’t lost her touch in making.
I’m glad for the respite even with the heat, after a morning of fixing the loose shingles on her roof, mowing the grass and pulling weeds up by her hydrangeas in her front yard.
Before I can gulp another sip of sweet tea Miss Odetta starts talking after silence filled the space between us for most of the morning. Her words about her baby boy Leroy flows out of her like ocean water.
“I always had dreams of Leroy being a pianist,” she said. He wasn’t like my other boys. Except for climbing that darn sapling, he didn’t rip and roar like thunder like boys are supposed to do. He was sweet, gentle and he loved music. When I played the radio, he would just hum along. One day I took him to work with me. The family I worked for had a piano and before I could stop him, Leroy was playing that piano, making up songs but I just watched him and knew…I knew in my heart he was different. That he was gonna do something special.”
There was a long pause. We waved to the neighbors across the way sitting on their porch and watched a few kids ride their bikes up and down the street.
I knew not to press her to hurry up and finish her story because Miss Odetta had her own timeclock for everything. I tapped my work boot on the ground and watched a trail of ants as I waited for her to talk.
“Lord, did I love him so,” she continued. “But my baby boy was hurting because his father didn’t want none of us any more when he was just a small boy needing a dad to lift him up in the air and give him a piggyback ride or just to throw a ball to. He struggled with that more than his brothers. I guess that’s what led to the drugs, this hole he had that I couldn’t fill.”
Miss Odetta sighed and then said, “That night before I found him with that syringe in his arm, I was going to try to convince him to go up North to be with his father. He was remarried now and I had long forgiven him. He said he could get Leroy in a program up there. One of those rehab places where he could stay for a few months until he got clean.
I waited all day and most of the night for Leroy but he never came home. I finally went to bed and woke up to folks screaming my name, “Miss Odetta, Miss
Odetta…come out here quick.”“I knew it was Leroy before I even saw his body. Didn’t much care how it happened, I just knew he was gone and it wasn’t supposed to be this way. My child was leaning against that sapling like he was somebody’s nobody instead of somebody’s precious child. I went to him and cradled him in my arms like he was a baby, twirled the curl of his hair, inhaled his aroma, started singing to him like I used to when he woke up scared when we had a thunderstorm until the ambulance came and took him away. And then I sat right next to that sapling until my sons pried me away to bring me inside.”
“For years until you came into my life, my mind was stayed on that night, worse than most mothers who’ve ever buried a child. Grief seeped through my pores and I was walking around like a woman who’d forgotten to bathe because a foul odor filled my being. I became more like ragweed than clover. Nothing, not a hymn playing on the radio, or a good sermon from the preacher could sweet-talk a smile from my lips. I sat on this porch in my rocking chair, my face fixed like a stone gazing upon that sapling.”
“My older boys wanted me to move into their homes, brick front colonials with enough bedrooms that I might get lost trying to find my own room. They, my boys, who I left to fend for themselves did well in life and still have a love for me I don’t rightly deserve. One opened an insurance business, the other opened a dry cleaners, the first black owned one in this town.
But I knew I would never leave this house or be somewhere that I couldn’t see that sapling even if seeing it day in and day out pained my soul.”
“Adopting you though was my saving grace. I know you might not think so, but your mother saved us both. You from a life of living pillar to post with God knows who and me from drowning in sorrow. I poured everything into you Christopher so you could have a good start and now look at you, on your way to college. I’m proud. Very proud,” Miss Odetta said as tears filled her eyes.
I swallowed the well rising inside of me and took her hand. Her hand, a hand that bottle fed me and held me and loved me as absolutely as she loved Leroy was surprisingly soft.
“Thank-you Ma Odetta,” I said.
It was the most treasured gift I could give her, to call her Ma. For although she had raised me as her own she always corrected me if I called her Ma.
“You got a mother boy,” she’d say, “even if she aint never been in your life she still carried you for nine months and brought you into this world.”
* * *
I got up to go inside the house and finish packing. My years as a young boy with this majestic woman flashed before my eyes.
In a week I would be gone and what I hoped the most for Ma Odetta was that she’d stop gazing at that sapling as bearing strange fruit and be enfolded in the peace she deserved. I hoped she would stop pacing the hallowed ground holding Leroy’s spirit like I saw her do late at night when she thought I was fast asleep. And I hoped mostly that she would still be here, rocking in her weather-beaten old rocking chair, waving a cardboard church fan when the mailman came and handed her a glossy magazine with her and Leroy’s story printed in it because I knew it was a story I had to tell.
Jeanine DeHoney is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, New York and has had her writing published in My Brown Baby, Essence, Upscale, Timbuktu, Mused-Bella Online, Skipping Stones Multicultural Magazine, The Write Place At The Write Time, Literary Mama, Underwater NYC, Mutha Magazine, Beautiful Black Magazine, The Mom Egg, Metro Fiction, True Stories Well Told, Devozine, Kimberly Elise's Natural Living blog, Artist Unleashed, and Jerry Jazz Magazine. She was also an essayist in Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul and in the anthology, Here In The Middle, and Theories of HER: an experimental anthology. Jeanine has contributed essays to Wow: Woman on Writing- The Muffin's Friday Speak-out, Scary Mommy.com, Brain Child Magazine, Parent. co and was also the 2013 Finalist and 2014 winner of the Brooklyn Art And Film Festival's Nonfiction Contest. She is also a contributing writer to Dream Teen Magazine.